The Challenges of Environmental Racism


Elizabeth Jazo, Staff Writer

When thinking of climate change, people usually go to pollution, greenhouse gases, and global warming. Black Lives Matter is about stopping racism, inequality, and discrimination. But have you heard the term Environmental Racism? This is a part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A good portion of the Black community has experienced worse health care, food, and are three times more likely to live in places deprived of nature, observed Elizabeth Yeampierre with PBS New Hour. Because of this, the Black community is exposed on average to 1.54 times more hazardous pollution than white people no matter their income, wrote Sarah Golden from GreenBiz Group. 

One example of Environmental Racism started in 1916 when racism was enforced by Jim Crow laws. These laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern United States. When making park policies, individual park superintendents determined who could go into national parks and who could not. Although the parks were designated as federal land, individual park superintendents used local or state laws and customs when crafting park policies. When Shenandoah National Park opened in 1934, park officials should not have discriminated against the Black community as the park was on on federal lands; instead, the park’s employees were told just to say that they had no workers for taking care of  the Black community in the parks. From 1930 to 1940, the southern states of the USA had added 150 national parks, and Black Americans could not go to any of them. It was not until 1945 that the US got a large number of parks to eradicate this law and allowed the Black community to be able to visit the parks. Yet even now environmental groups still choose to avoid talking about this topic in order to keep the focus on climate change, which they do not want connected to racism. That’s why Environmental Justice movements that focus on bringing equality to environmental laws regardless of race receive less than 0.10%  percent of all social foundation grants, making them the most under-supported monetarily of social movements (NPR-CAI).

Most people don’t realize that the worst of our environmental issues affect the Black community the most. The reason behind this is not a surprise. After Emancipation, freed men and women only had access to land that no one wanted. This land was, in fewer than 10 years, turned into areas where factories and mines were built; these places let out toxic pollutants into the air, according to Faith Briggs of Global Works Community Fund. Many couldn’t change their situation because of their low income. To this day Black Americans are three times more likely  to die from exposure to small particle air pollution compared to white people, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. In neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40% or higher, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to die from this exposure than any other race. A good portion struggle to pay for baseline energy needs, which causes things like no clean water.  Because of this legacy,  Black Americans are more likely to struggle due to environmental issues, wrote Sarah Golden from GreenBiz Group. 

This is a problem in Massachusetts, too.

“We have some of the most profound racial and class disparities with respect to the unequal exposure to ecological hazards that you will find anywhere in the United States,” said Dr. Daniel Faber, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University and director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative.

Neighborhoods that are mostly populated by Black Americans have a higher chance of having a power plant, waste incinerator, or hazardous waste disposal site situated close by. The reason is that even though the 2001 Alexander v. Sandoval Supreme Court decision states that a community has to prove that the company is hurting the community and being racist in their choice of where to put their factory, the government does not take into account whether the company has done this multiple times.  Even if a company put its factories in a racially-biased spot numerous times, they would only get punished for doing it once. Massachusetts has amazing environmental policies, but it still fails to address the racism that a portion of the Black community experiences while they are exposed to more ecological hazards (NPR-CAI).

Addressing the climate crisis is not just about stopping pollution, greenhouse gases, and global warming. It’s also about working to end the racism, inequality, and discrimination the Black community goes through due to environmental policies. 

Thank you, Ms. Scottie Mobley, for getting me so interested in this topic!